Trust in advertising: why it’s bad and how to get it back

By rosie quirke

Anything is Possible


The Drum Network article

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February 9, 2021 | 6 min read

In the industry that still sometimes insists ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’, there are still some accolades no-one really wants.

trust in advertising

Trust in advertising

That’s why I was dispirited to see in Ipsos Mori’s latest Veracity Index that advertising executives – the career I chose for myself upon graduating two years ago – are once again the least trusted profession in the UK.

Out of 1,873 UK adults, only 13% said they trusted ad execs. So, lately I’ve had to ask myself two questions. Or perhaps it’s just one question seen from two different angles:

Why is trust in what we do so low?

And why don’t I feel like an untrustworthy person?

In times of uncertainty, especially in the face of unprecedented social, political and economic turmoil, trust has never been more important – or more difficult to come by. The public wants to trust media sources to provide relevant, up-to-date information that reflects the truth of the matter. In the past year the accuracy of that information has been literally life-or-death important.

This raising of the stakes has raised our suspicions too, because trust is suddenly so valuable. If I click on a bad link, I don’t stand to get a virus on my computer or waste some money on another app I’ll never use. Under the coronavirus, that information could be the difference between me taking the pathogen home to my family – or them living to see another Christmas.

Although we are five years on from when the industry finally started to get a clue about ‘fake news‘, the Veracity Index highlights the need for the advertising industry to win back the trust of the people and make hardcore commitments to fight against, but equally prevent, the spreading of fake news.

I’ve never thought of myself as a Zoom-er (or at least I didn’t, until that became the only channel for speaking to people all day). People of my generation are meant to have a built-in bullshit detector to spot the distortions and misinformation of the media a mile away.

I never felt that was true. Managing my life from screen to screen and platform to platform was just something I did. It wasn’t until recently that I realised that my ability to get the information that I needed and sift the pointless junk from the life-saving gold was something that so many other people – most of them, I hate to say it, way older than me – just can’t do.

Understandably, not feeling able to trust the information you’re using to decide whether to wear a mask or not is confusing and scary. And nothing attacks trust like fear. It makes you lash out at the other and dig your heels in to whatever safe and fixed idea you already have – even if it ends up costing you everything.

Having those emotions doesn’t make people stupid. Fear is a rational response to a bad situation – and they know who to blame for the mess. It’s the people managing those platforms that flash a shiny banner up whenever they log on.

The problem is us

One of the things I like about the industry is that it does come with power (which of course, should come with great responsibility). The work we do holds sway over what people think, feel and do. That’s the whole point of it. And that means we have a vital role to play at times of crisis.

Maybe we can learn from looking at the high level of trust enjoyed by nurses and other key workers and think about the experiences people have from them versus the experiences they might get from us.

Are people getting ads that speak to them in a language they understand? Do they feel the ads served to them on their favourite platforms are too uncanny, betraying an invasion of privacy they never asked for?

Do the ads tell them what they need to hear, or just what they want to hear? People don’t always expect good news from a medic. But they expect to be credited with the intelligence to know the difference between the good and the bad and the patience to understand the explanation.

If we want to be understood positively, maybe we should wield our influence more carefully. Not only in current times in spreading vital public health information around Covid-19, but also for spreading the word about any issue that affects the general public.

A beginning point for winning back that trust is focusing on the core of our ads: making sure they are engaging, contribute something useful to any debate, and reward the audience for the implicit trust they place in it. We need to ensure agencies and brands respect people's time and understand the value of their attention.

Because that’s already what I feel like my colleagues and I are doing every day.

The people I work with aren’t untrustworthy. We take care to ensure that our ads are compliant with the high standards our clients and their audiences expect. We are 100% transparent and guided in everything we do by the Conscious Ad Network’s six manifestos.

It’s through internal, industry-led initiatives like this that we can pave a way to create a new stereotype which celebrates intuitive and innovative campaigns which put the public trust at the forefront.

I’m not saying we will become as trusted as doctors overnight. But surely we can work towards becoming an industry that’s more trusted than say… politicians?

Rosie Quirke, digital media exec, Anything is Possible.


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